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Weekend Beat / MEGURO GAJOEN: Hotel like a theme park with a Japanese spirit

A series of paintings adorn Meguro Gajoen hotel`s banquet room walls.
A series of paintings adorn Meguro Gajoen hotel`s banquet room walls.

With its walls and ceilings brimming with richly colored-gold, vermilion, green and others-paintings and reliefs, the sumptuous interior of the Meguro Gajoen hotel's old wing is on a par with the grandeur found in Europe's most beautiful buildings.

Yet the home of this epitome of tasteful opulence is not a faraway city, but Tokyo. A stone's throw from JR Meguro Station, the hotel, which is now a popular wedding hall, was originally built as a restaurant and inn in the early Showa Period (1926-1989) with the stated aim of ``offering the public a taste of what it's like to be a millionaire.'' The building was designated as a registered tangible cultural property in 2001.

Today, its splendor is drawing the attention not only of students majoring in architecture and design, but also of pop stars, who shoot CD covers there, and members of the public, of whom 70 to 80 participate in each hourlong tour of the building on weekends.

A participant in a recent tour, from Saku, Nagano Prefecture, said he felt ``dizzy as if I were being sucked in.''

``This is an extraordinary place, in complete contrast to the bustle of the city,'' said another visitor from Tokyo's Nerima Ward.

The banquet halls, whose entrance area was formerly the old wing's grand entrance, are popular among couples who want a traditional wedding. The rooms feature a grand array of Genroku (late 17th-century) art.

Visitors to the old wing are greeted by a famous ``100-step staircase,'' whose zelkova steps each measure about 160 centimeters wide, 30 centimeters deep and 5 centimeters thick. The shiny steps, of which there are in fact only 99, have been polished by the soles of guests' shoes for the past 70 years, so that visitors now feel as if they're looking at their never-ending image in a pool of water.

Six rooms ranging in size from 18 to 39 tatami mats are located along the right side of the steps, and are built at six levels along the staircase's incline.

The 30-mat Gyosho no ma (the fisherman and woodcutter room) is named after a contrarian debate between the two men that takes seemingly contradictory positions such as ``up is down.''

Images of a woodcutter and fisherman Urashima Taro, the central character in a folk tale, are carved on two pillars flanking the alcove. The pillars, which have a diameter of about 70 centimeters, are made of 300-year-old Japanese cypress.

Paintings by Kashu Kikuchi and other artists adorn the ceiling and walls, grouped into themes such as ``spring and fall.'' Yet the paintings feature a jumble of subjects including aristocrats from the Heian Period (794-1185) and women in the late 16th- and early 17th-century Momoyama style. The room is filled with the intoxicating, mysterious atmosphere of Japanese-style baroque.

The decor at Meguro Gajoen is characteristic of such restaurant-hotels, which present an array of auspicious motifs to attract attention, said Shinya Hashizume, assistant professor of urban culture at Osaka City University and an expert in commercial architecture.

``The decor conveys tales in fragments and creates a fun atmosphere reminiscent of a theme park,'' he says. ``At the root of it all, we sense the Japanese spirit of hospitality.''

The lavish interior of Meguro Gajoen is rumored to be the model for the setting of the award-winning animated film ``Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi'' (Spirited Away). The 30-mat Sokyu no ma is just like the room where the protagonist Chihiro lives with the other female servants in the film. It's a room with a view, as two sides have glass sliding doors and an engawa (verandalike porch).

Furthermore, the 100-step staircase resembles the stairs where Chihiro is cornered by the character Kaonashi, while Gyosho no ma is reminiscent of the bathhouse in the film.

A Gajoen spokesperson says there's been no confirmation that the hotel was a model for the film. But the tour guide who showed me around the building believes that is the case.

The magnificent interior of Meguro Gajoen in Tokyo's Meguro Ward has captured the imagination of artists in various fields in recent years.

Ikebana artist Shogo Kariyazaki has held an annual exhibition on the 100-step staircase for the past four years. Pop singer Hitomi Shimatani used the hotel's Juppo no ma room to shoot a promotional video, while the original entrance to the old wing was featured on the cover of CDs by pop group 20th Century and Takahiro Matsumoto of the rock band B'z.

The old wing opened its doors in 1931 as a restaurant specializing in Peking and Japanese cuisine. Now one of Tokyo's leading venues for traditional weddings, the building has been dubbed the ``sea god's palace of the Showa Period'' for its sumptuous decor.

Rikizo Hosokawa, the founder of Meguro Gajoen, was born to a family of farmers in Ishikawa Prefecture. After coming to Tokyo, he worked at a public bathhouse in Kanda. Striking out on his own, he started a business centering on bathhouse management and later went into the restaurant business.

Initially, the idea of Gajoen was to offer a casual setting where the public could enjoy food and a bath. An old postcard introduces it as: ``Radium hot spring. Bath at Gajoen for 100 people.'' Over the years, as rival hotels entered the market, Gajoen reportedly had no choice but to transform itself into an upscale facility.

Gajoen's old wing, where six rooms are connected by the 100-step stairs, is a reminder of those old days. The building was in use until 1988.

The craftsmanship displayed in the ceilings and walls is partly attributable to the circumstances prevailing in this country at the time the hotel was erected.

Construction of the building coincided with the recession caused by the Great Depression, and painters and woodworkers are said to have flocked to Gajoen, where it was rumored that plenty of jobs were available.

One of the highlights of the building's decor is a crane made of fine mother-of-pearl inlay.

So much mother-of-pearl was used to create the piece that the market price was reportedly affected.

No doubt it is such craftsmanship that fascinates the artists who have come to love the building today.(IHT/Asahi: November 6,2004)


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